A marked change in the tone of public sentiment was the consequence of the hanging of the blood-stained criminals, whose deserved fate is recorded in the preceding chapters. Men breathed freely; for Plummer and Stinson especially were dreaded by almost every one. The latter was of the type of that brutal desperado whose formula of introduction to a Western bar-room is so well known in the Mountains: "Whoop! I'm from Pike County, Missouri; I'm ten feet high; my abode is where lewd women and licentious men mingle; my parlor is the Rocky Mountains. I smell like a wolf; I drink water out of a brook like a horse. Look out, you, I'm going to turn loose," etc. A fit mate for such a God-forgotten outlaw was Stinson, and he, with the oily and snake-like demon, Plummer, the wily, redhanded, and politely merciless chief, and the murderer and robber, Ray, were no more. The Vigilantes organized rapidly. Public opinion sustained them.
On Monday morning it was determined to arrest "the Greaser," Joe Pizanthia, and to see precisely how his record stood in the Territory. Outside of it, it was known that he was a desperado, a murderer and a robber; but that was not the business of the Vigilantes. A party started for his cabin, which was built in a side-hill. The interior looked darker than usual from the bright glare of the surrounding snow. The summons to come forth being disregarded, Smith Ball and George Copley entered, contrary to the advice of their comrades, and instantly received the fire of their concealed foe. Copley was shot through the breast, Smith Ball received a bullet in the hip. They both staggered out, each ejaculating "I'm shot." Copley was led off by two friends, and died of his wound. Smith Ball recovered himself, and was able to empty his six-shooter into the body of the assassin, when the latter was dragged forth.
The popular excitement rose nearly to madness. Copley was a much-esteemed citizen, and Smith Ball had many friends. It was the instant resolution of all present that the vengeance on the Greaser should be summary and complete.
A party whose military experience was still fresh in their memory made a rush, at the double-quick for a mountain howitzer which lay dismounted, where it had been left by the train to which it was attached. Without waiting to place it on the carriage, it was brought by willing hands to within five rods of the windowless side of the cabin, and some old artillerists, placing it on a box, loaded it with shell, and laid it for the building. By one of those omissions so common during times of excitement, the fuse was left uncut, and, being torn out in its passage through the logs, the missile never exploded, but left a clean breach through the wall, making the chips fly. A second shell was put into the gun, and this time the fuse was cut, but the range was so short that the explosion took place after it had traversed the house.
Thinking that Pizanthia might have taken refuge in the chimney, the howitzer was pointed for it and sent a solid shot through it. Meanwhile the military, judgment of the leader had been shown by the posting of some riflemen opposite the shot-hole, with instructions to maintain so rapid a fire upon it that the beleaguered inmate should not be able to use it as a crenelle through which to fire upon the assailants. No response being given to the cannon and small-arms, the attacking party began to think of storming the dwelling.
The leader called for volunteers to follow him. Nevada* cast in her lot first, and men from the crowd joined. The half dozen stormers moved steadily, under cover to the edge of the last building, and then dashed at the house, across the open space. The door had fallen from the effects of the fusilade; but, peeping in, they could see nothing until a sharp eye noticed the Greaser's boots protruding. Two lifted the door, while Smith Ball drew his revolver and stood ready. The remainder seized the boots.
* John Lott was the man to go in.
On lifting the door, Pizanthia was found lying flat and badly hurt. His revolver was beside him. He was quickly dragged out, Smith Ball paying him for the wound he had received by emptying his revolver into him.
A clothes-line was taken down and fastened round his neck; the leader* climbed a pole, and the rest holding up the body, he wound the rope round the top of the stick of timber, making a jamb hitch. While aloft, fastening all securely, the crowd blazed away upon the murderer swinging beneath his feet. At his request, "Say, boys! stop shooting a minute" -the firing ceased, and he came down "by the run." Over one hundred shots were discharged at the swaying corpse.
* Simeon Estes.
A friend -one of the four Bannack originals -touched the leader's arm and said, ''Come and see my bonfire." Walking down to the cabin, he found that it had been razed to the ground by the maddened people, and was then in a bright glow of flame. A proposition to burn the Mexican was received with a shout of exultation. The body was hauled down and thrown upon the pile, upon which it was burned to ashes so completely that not a trace of a bone could be seen when the fire burned out.
In the morning some women of ill-fame actually panned out the ashes, to see whether the desperado had any gold in his purse. We are glad to say that they were not rewarded for their labors by striking any auriferous deposit.
The popular vengeance had been only partially satisfied so far as Pizanthia was concerned; and it would be well if those who preach against the old Vigilance Committee would reflect upon the great difference which existed between the prompt and really necessary severity which they exercised and the wild and ungovernable passion which goads the masses of all countries, when roused to deeds of vengeance of a type so fearful that humanity recoils at the recital. Over and over again we have heard a man declaring that it was "a shame," to hang some one that he wished to see punished. ", he ought to be burnt; I would pack brush three miles up a mountain myself." "He ought to be fried in his own grease," etc., and it must not be supposed that such expressions were mere idle bravado. The men said just what they meant. In cases where criminals convicted of grand larceny have been whipped, it has never yet happened that the punishment has satisfied the crowd. The truth is, that the Vigilance Committee simply punished with death men unfit to live in any community, and that death was, usually, almost instantaneous, and only momentarily painful. With the exceptions recorded (Stinson and Ray) the drop and death of the victim seemed simultaneous. In a majority of cases, a few almost imperceptible muscular contortions, not continuing over a few seconds, were all that the keenest observer could detect; whereas, had their punishment been left to outsiders, the penalty would have been cruel and disgusting in the highest degree. What would be thought of the burning of Wagner and panning out his ashes by order of the Vigilantes? In every case where men have confessed their crimes to the Vigilantes of Montana, they dreaded the vengeance of their comrades far more than their execution at the hands of the Committee, and clung to them as if they considered them friends.
A remarkable instance of this kind was apparent in the conduct of John Wagner. While in custody at the cabin, on Yankee Flat, the sound of footsteps and suppressed voices was heard in the night. Fetherstun jumped up, determined to defend himself and his prisoner to the last. Having prepared his arms, he cast a, look over his shoulder to see what Dutch John was doing. The road agent stood with a double-barrelled gun in his hand, evidently watching for a chance to do battle on behalf of his captor. Fetherstun glanced approvingly at him, and said, "That's right, John, give them ." John smiled grimly and nodded, the muzzle of his piece following the direction of the sound, aud his. dark eyes glaring like those of a roused lion. Had he wished, he could have shot Fetherstun in the back, without either difficulty or danger. Probably the assailants heard the ticking of the locks of the pieces in the still night, and therefore determined not to risk such an attack, which savages of all kinds especially dislike.
The evening after the death of Pizanthia the newly-organized Committee met, and, after some preliminary discussion, a vote was taken as to the fate of Dutch John. The result was that his execution was unanimously adjudged, as the only penalty meeting the merits of the case. He had been a murderer and a highway robber for years.
One of the number present at the meeting was deputed to convey the intelligence to Wagner; and accordingly he went down to his place of confinement and read to him his sentence of death, informing him that he would be hanged in an hour from that time. Wagner was much shocked by the news. He raised himself to his feet and walked with agitated and tremulous steps across the floor, once or twice. He begged hard for life, praying them to cut off his arms and legs, and then let him go. He said, "You know I could do nothing then." He was informed that his request could not be complied with, and that he must prepare to die.
Finding death to be inevitable, Wagner summoned his fortitude to his aid and showed no more signs of weakness. It was a matter of regret that he could not be saved for his courage, and (outside of his villainous trade) his good behavior won upon his captors and judges to an extent that they were unwilling to admit, even to themselves. Amiability and bravery could not be taken as excuses for murder and robbery, and so Dutch John bad to meet a felon's death and the judgment to come, with but short space for repentance.
He said that he wished to send a letter to his mother, in New York, and inquired whether there was not a Dutchman in the house who could write in his native language. A man being procured qualified as desired, he communicated his wishes to him aud his amanuensis wrote as directed. Wagner's fingers were rolled up in rags, and he could not handle the pen without inconvenience and pain. He had not recovered from the frost-bites which had moved the pity of X Beidler when he met John before his capture, below Red Rock. The epistle being finished, it was read aloud by the scribe; but it did not please Wagner. He pointed out several inaccuracies in the method of carrying out his instructions, both as regarded the manner and the matter of the communication; and at last unrolling the rags from his fingers, he sat down and wrote the missive himself.
He told his mother that he was condemned to die, and had but a few minutes to live; that when coming over from the other side, to deal in horses, he had been met by bad men who had forced him to adopt the line of life that had placed him in his present miserable position; that the crime for which he was sentenced to die was assisting in robbing a wagon, in which affair he had been wounded and taken prisoner, and that his companion had been killed. (This latter assertion he probably believed.) He admitted the justice of his sentence.
The letter, being concluded, was handed to the Vigilantes for transmission to his mother. He then quietly replaced the bandages on his wounded fingers. The style of the composition showed that he was neither terrified nor even disturbed at the thought of the fast approaching and disgraceful end of his guilty life. The statements were positively untrue, in many particulars, and he seemed to write only as a matter of routine duty; though we may hope that his affection for his mother was, at least, genuine.
He was marched from the place of his confinement to an unfinished building, where the bodies of Stinson and Plummer were laid out -the one on the floor and the other on a work bench. Ray's corpse had been handed over to his mistress, at her special request. The doomed man gazed without shrinking on the remains of the malefactors, and asked leave to pray. This was, of course, granted, and he knelt down. His lips moved rapidly; but he uttered no word audibly. On rising to his feet, he continued apparently to pray, looking round, however, upon the assembled Vigilantes all the time. A rope being thrown over a cross-beam, a barrel was placed ready for him to stand upon. While the final preparations were making, the prisoner asked how long it would take him to die, as he had never seen a man hanged. He was told that it would be only a short time. The noose was adjusted; a rope was tied round the head of the barrel and the party took hold. At the word, ''All ready," the barrel was instantly jerked from beneath his feet, and he swung in the death agony. His struggles were very powerful for a short time; so iron a frame could not quit its hold on life as easily as a less muscular organization. After hanging till frozen stiff, the body was cut down and buried decently.*
* See William Roe's story of David Morgan. Story of Ajax.